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How Necessary Is Windows? Part 1: Overview

Still dealing with neck problems here, but in the background I’ve been pursuing a long-term, low-intensity project aimed at discerning how necessary Windows is for my daily operations. Back in 2001 or so, Keith and I considered publishing a book called Dumping Microsoft, but after I looked closely at the Linux releases of the time, decided it would be premature. Windows 2000 was mighty good, and Linux had yet to break out of its all-hail-the-console, pain-is-good hacker culture. It may be time to reconsider the necessity of Windows (and perhaps that book) which is what my upcoming series here is about.

I’ve changed operating systems often enough in the last 30 years not to get too attached to any of them, and have no tribal/emotional investment in Windows 2000 or XP. An OS is just a workbench, after all: It does very little work by itself, and exists almost entirely to help applications do what they must do in the most productive way possible. Too much of modern OS versions is just gratuitous glitz, which eats machine cycles and doesn’t get a page laid out any faster. My reaction to Windows Vista was pretty simple: What’s in all this for me? The primary purpose of Windows Vista was to make itself harder to steal, which is something of a fetish over there–and all the glitz was tossed in to persuade people to upgrade. Furthermore, the damned thing was slow. No sale.

You’ve heard me say many times here that personal computing is mature. I help out people at our parish with their computers, and an astonishing number of them still use Office 97. They may use the latest IE or Firefox, but they haven’t seen the need to spend more money on word processing or spreadsheets. That’s because the need isn’t there. Office ’97 probably has 90% of everything useful in an office suite; if you want the rest, get Office 2000, which I myself have been using for almost ten years now.

It’s taken Linux longer to reach parity with Win2K/XP because it’s written by volunteer programmers and not highly paid engineers on continuous death-march. It’s also required the vision of a consumer-oriented distro firm to package up a version of Linux amenable to non-technical people. The testing I’ve done over the past year (in parallel with revising my assembly language book for Linux) tells me that Canonical’s Ubuntu Linux is ready for ordinary users, and if it were widely available as a preinstall would be considered no geekier than Windows. (Installing Ubuntu from CD is actually loads easier than installing Windows XP. Microsoft would be perhaps a third its current size if not for Windows preinstalls.)

What makes it urgent now is a creeping suspicion I have that Windows malware is unstoppable. I see articles on tech sites several times a week describing new and increasingly clever exploits of flaws in Microsoft and Adobe software. This is troubling on many fronts, from the technical–Why in hell do we still have buffer overflow exploits after all these years?–to the purely political: How do we know that exploits in closed-source software have really been fixed? Linux is not immune to infection (it’s secure at least in part because of its rarity) but the fact is that infections are difficult and rarely seen in the wild. I want to take advantage of that security, whatever its origins.

Hence the current project. I’ve talked about bits and pieces of it here and there in the past year, and it may be time to present what I’ve learned in more detail. Stay tuned.


  1. Phil Jurgenson says:

    Interesting to see this post at this time. Like you, I’ve been using Windows 2000 for the past several years, with the occasional foray into Linux to see how that’s progressing. (I’ve run a Linux server in my home office for over 5 years now, to serve as a file, print, and mail server, and that’s worked out quite well.) I’ve seen no need to upgrade to Vista or Windows 7, or even XP, for that matter, in large part because (a) I haven’t really encountered much software that requires it, and (b) because I really, REALLY don’t like Microsoft’s insistence on its “activation” policies.

    I’m in the process of building a new primary system for myself, and have decided to try using a 64-bit Linux as the OS. VirtualBox looks good enough to use for those things that need a genuine Windows system to run, and Wine will also work for quite a few others, including some that I wrote for my own private use. I use only Firefox for a web browser, and have long used Thunderbird for email. OpenOffice works just fine for my meager word-processing and spreadsheet needs.

    Like you, I look at the more recent Windows versions as primarily eye-candy, requiring more computing power to do the same or less, and containing that awful activation code. No, thank you.

    So that’s the route I’m going to try next. If it doesn’t work out, well, I suppose I can always pony up the cash for Windows 7…

  2. It seems to me that the only killer apps from where you sit would be photoshop and indesign. For me, at least, The Gimp (the open source replacement for photoshop) is wretched to use, and I’ve never gotten it to do the kinds of things that photoshop makes so darn easy. As I’m still scratching the surface of using InDesign, I’m not clear on whether it’s actually easier to use than TeX/LaTeX. Conceptually it doesn’t seem to be, and they both generate perfectly competent PDFs.

    At the risk of sounding like a fanboy, I’d really nudge you to take a look at Mac OS X.


    1. Bob Halloran says:


      I assume if you’ve tinkered with TeX/LaTeX, you’ve tried LyX (, the WYSIWYG editor. It’s cross-platform, and oriented towards document production. Since that’s not my thing, any thoughts on how it compares to the Adobe toolset?

      For my part, I’ve been 100% Linux at home for the last couple of years, and my wife’s decided that when her XP system finally goes down for the count, its replacement will be some flavor of Mac. At that point our work-provided laptops will be the only Windows equipment in the household.

      Bob H.

  3. David says:

    How necessary is an operating system? Sometimes I wonder. For people doing more of their work in the cloud the operating system is rapidly becoming the thing that hosts their browser. Email has been done online for a long time now and we’re used to it. Spreadsheets and word processors are in the midst of the same move. You can even do photo editing online. Video editing is still something to be done on the local machine but in time that may change too.

  4. Tom R. says:

    Jeff, Now might be a good time for your book! Like you, my primary machine still runs Windows 2000 Pro. However, my wife’s machine is XP since she is the gamer in this family. I also have a couple of test boxes on which I have had six or more different Linux distro’s. I have worked on so many different computers; Burroughs, IBM Mainframes, DEC’s and HP-UX systems that I just don’t care what operating system it is as long as it lets me do what I need to do.

    Maybe you should work on a set of laws for Operating Systems modeled somewhat after Asimov’s laws of Robotics. I don’t know exactly what form these would take, but you might start with something like the operating system should not get in your way. Of course you could then add an exception law or two for protecting itself from corruption or being usurped.

    The reason I say now may be the time is because of a call I got today from a good friend who I worked with for many years and who was always one of the first to upgrade just about anything. He was not unhappy with Vista and was impressed with its stability and that he could configure it to work pretty much like XP. He just moved to Windows 7 and he hates it! He said it was so much less stable and less configurable that even he is about to give up on it!

    Perhaps Operating Systems follow their own version of the Peter Principle and get upgraded to incompetence.

  5. Chuck Waggoner says:

    Hmm. My application needs are pretty specific–a lot relating to audio. Earlier in the year, I tried Linux again–Ubuntu to be specific–for the first time in 5 years. Both of my kids have Macs, so I am familiar with that, too.

    Bottom line is that I don’t think either Linux or Mac represents any formidable challenge to MS. IMO, Linux and Mac are hobby OS’es, and while I once dabbled with computers as a hobby, they are now essential tools to life–both at home and at work.

    I was amazed to find so many Linux projects just plain abandoned–especially audio. Even the players that most people commonly use in the Linux world have been abandoned by developers, with none of them having come anywhere close to the capabilities of Winamp alone (there are many other players in Windows that are still in quite active development).

    Meanwhile, Open Office Writer has an absolutely fatal flaw for me, in that it lacks the “Normal View” that Word has (this has been a big user complaint for a long time, and OO.o does not seem interested in fixing it). For people who write a lot, formatting is the last step in the process, and I do not want to see my text on pages unless I am about to print it.

    In fact, I have been trying to get my old DOS copy of XyWrite working again, just because there has been nothing better or faster for composing text than it was. The DOS emulator in XP runs the processors high enough that my laptop fan runs constantly. I tried using DOSBox–which does not even break 5% of processor use running XyWrite,–but DOSBox reserves Ctrl-Function keys for its own use, and I cannot find a way to disable those. My XyWrite template makes heavy use of Ctrl-Function keys (as did many DOS programs).

    I had other problems with the Linux experiment–such as maximized windows being larger than the computer screen and thereby putting menu selections out of reach.

    As far as running Linux to run WINE to run Windows programs–why? Everything I need is in Windows; very little is in Linux or Mac, and aside from paying a heavy premium for the Mac hardware, the programs cost a fortune, too!

    I have not heard anything bad about Win7. One of my students is a software tester for a major international company, and says she has been testing programs on Win7 for months now, and finds it both stable and the program everybody hoped Vista would be.

    1. Keith Dick says:


      Your remark about maximized windows being larger than the screen, putting menus out of reach makes me think there is a feature that you may not be aware of.

      The feature is that in Linux one may move a window by putting the mouse pointer in *any* part of the window, holding down the ALT key, then holding down the left mouse button and dragging, as normal. Thus, you do not have to be able to see the title bar in order to move a window. If the window happens to be maximized, this technique also switches it to be a resizeable window.

      I don’t know whether this works with every window manager. I have not often had a need to use it, but it has worked for me every time I’ve somehow encountered a window whose title bar was off the screen.

      I don’t mean this as a justification for maximized windows being larger than the screen. I just want to point out a bit of information that it seems you aren’t aware of and which might be useful to you in a pinch sometime. If you did know about this feature, please pardon me for assuming otherwise.

      1. Chuck Waggoner says:

        Thanks for the tip. I did not know it. Just tried it with Gimp and Pidgin which both use GTK under Windows, but that trick does not work with GTK. That is a shame, as it would be neat and useful, because occasionally, Gimp puts menus or dialog buttons off the screen in Windows. Oh, well.

        I am not running anything but Windows at the moment, but will be experimenting again with Linux after I am relocated back to the US and have a spare computer to work with. Will be following things here closely. It is not that I love Windows, but at present, its applications are crucial to the work I have to turn out.

        1. Keith Dick says:


          Hmmm. I just tried it with GIMP under Ubuntu 7.10 (the one I happened to have closest to hand) and the Alt-Drag technique works in that environment.

          From the wording of your post, it sounds like you tried Alt-Drag on a Windows computer. I wouldn’t expect it to work under Windows. I think it is something tied to the X-windows windowing system.

          I was addressing the problem you mentioned about GIMP opening windows under Linux with the menus off the screen. If that is happening with Windows, I don’t know of a trick to use in that situation (though there might be one).

          1. Chuck Waggoner says:

            Yes, Windows–I guess I did not make that clear. Gimp occasionally gives me windows larger than life, but usually, I can deal with it one way or another. Still, that Alt-click-move trick would be useful in any environment.

    2. Aki says:

      “IMO, Linux and Mac are hobby OS’es, …”

      Yes indeed! 😉

      “The London Stock Exchange moves its trading to Linux”

      1. Chuck Waggoner says:

        Hmm. Obviously a corporate-wide deployment with IT professionals installing, supervising, and probably programming is a whole different ballgame than what I gathered Jeff was referring to. If I am wrong about that, then excuse my comment. I do sub-contracting work for a billion-dollar corporation that has over 15,000 Windows seats worldwide. They support over 1,000 Windows programs worldwide–many of them custom programs. They did a cost study of a switch to Linux when they thought MS might force Vista on them, and concluded that such a switch was not anywhere within the realm of economic viability.

        And there are already enough people commenting who agree with me that Linux operation is not as smooth as Windows, that I do not feel my comment is out-of-line. Add to that, the fact that I would have to run WINE to run Windows programs for my audio requirements, and it is definitely hobby-oriented IMO–a sink-hole for experimentation. I do not need to spend time figuring out how to run and tweak WINE on Linux if I am using Windows in the first place.

        I ran into all kinds of audio problems in the couple months of hobby time I spent with Ubuntu, and found that audio levels alone were not consistent between applications nor did input/output situations match properly when using programs like Audacity. Not a problem I have at all in Windows.

        1. Indeed. Having never been involved in rolling out or maintaining an OS or apps on that scale, I won’t try to field an opinion. I’m thinking of people who work at home (or in very small businesses) and use computers that are not part of some greater whole. The point of the series is to explore some of the issues that govern what we use to compute and why. Supporting 15,000-seat installations is quite a different set of questions.

          One side observation, though: A lot of discussion in this area recalls arguments I overheard 25-30 years ago about the benefits of placing mainframe terminals in front of staffers vis-a-vis microcomputers. Central management has a vital role and I support it; the problem is often simple inflexibility and–dare I say it–incompetence and ego on the IT side. My experience at a very large corporation in that era suggests that bad central management is generally worse than no central management at all. There’s a sweet spot somewhere between autocracy and anarchy, and the big skill in IT management these days is giving up just enough control to find that sweet spot.

        2. Bob Halloran says:

          >> I do sub-contracting work for a billion-dollar corporation that has over 15,000 Windows seats worldwide. They support over 1,000 Windows programs worldwide–many of them custom programs.

          Which probably was the deal-killer right there. Linux isn’t *the* solution anymore than Windows. The issue is realizing when you’re making yourself dependent on the platform and the fallout from that.

          With a lot of companies looking at browser-based apps, “cloud computing”, Java, etc., though, the potential to run on multiple platforms gets easier and easier. When it becomes trivial to shift platforms, your business isn’t tied to some software vendor’s cash-flow demands, presumably to your benefit.

    3. The main motivation for me is dodging malware (which may someday become the title of a book) which is way worse on Windows than any other platform. Interestingly, I have less trouble with audio on Ubuntu than I do under XP, especially with videos. As always, much depends on the hardware, and I admit that I may have just been lucky so far.

      I am also much-troubled by the “customer as enemy” philosophy espoused by most major software vendors these days. I’ll talk about that later in the series, which may take as much as a week. I’m working a couple of days in advance but I’m not done yet by any means.

  6. Tony Kyle says:

    At home I use OS X, and it is thanks to MS and Vista that I do. Eighteen months ago Vista ate my data. For the technical, it is called a corrupt registry. 🙁

    How did I get involved with Vista? My wife had a PowerMac G5 and after about 2 years was still having learning issues so she decided to buy a Gateway computer and that with Vista installed. But thanks to a glitch on the Gateway which resulted in the system rebooting every 5 to 15 minutes, she gladly switched back to the PowerMac G5. 🙂 BestBuy replaced the Gateway and only after that did I find the BIOS patch and information detailing the reboot issues.

    Being a good and generous husband, I purchased the Gateway from her and when my XP system started to act strange (turned out to be bad memory), I decided to use the Gateway and tame the beast to my needs. Most software installed without issue. But Intuit had sunsetted my version of Quicken and PhotoShop CS was not officially supported on Vista. There were other issues.

    Which brings us to March 2008. By now my wife had upgraded her G5 Mac to a Intel based Mac running Leopard. To help her out I purchased the used G5 from her. When Vista ate my data, and knowing I was going to have to purchase new software to do our banking and also a PhotoShop upgrade (as well as other things), I decided I would instead switch operating systems. I suspect the corrupt registry was self-inflicted while applying a setting that was not editable via any of the system tools.

    Thus I put my money in to Apple vendors’ pockets. The financial program is now MoneyDance, which can run on any of the operating systems around because it is Java based. Switching from PS CS to PS CS3 was not very painful and in the end I had a more stable system than Vista ever thought of being.

    Alas, at work I am a Windows web developer doing C#, ASP.Net, Adobe Flex and ActionScript 3. But if I could swing it, I would abandon Windows entirely and move to OS X or Linux, having used Linux since Slackware 1.2 in the mid-1990s. 🙂

    Interestingly enough, my wife now has a Mac 2009 system, I inherited (my b’day present this year) the 2008 Mac and LOVE it. I’ve spent more money on hardware and software in the last 18 months than I did the previous 5 years COMBINED. One potential reason is Apple has made computers fun for me again whereas Windows is work.

    But I am not a zealous user. My belief is people should use what they want and are comfortable with. 🙂

    By the way, the Gateway is still in the house. It is the Home Theater PC. It does very little and for that Vista seems more than able to do. LOL

    Take care,

  7. Brook Monroe says:

    If buffer overflow exploits are still possible in software that’s written by professionals and undergoes peer reviews, what makes you think that software written by non-pros working on their own time (some of which might be 12-year-old self-taught Pacific islanders, or worse, unethical Russian teens) wouldn’t also have buffer overflows? I’ve looked at a lot of Open Source C and C++ code, and in a lot of cases, it looked to me like the coders hadn’t seen the inside of a classroom, ever. (I realize that Linux code gets peer reviewed as well, but what good is done having uneducated peers review the code of uneducated coders?)

    1. Keith Dick says:

      Well, for the major open source projects, the folks who accept changes into the mainline code generally are very experienced programmers and would not allow sloppy code into the code base.

      Certainly not every open source project has such experienced maintainers, so there is some danger of sloppy code getting into some of them. I can’t give you any reliable way to distinguish the ones you can rely on from the ones you might not be able to rely on.

      I think the folks who assemble distributions such as Fedora, OpenSUSE, Debian, Ubuntu, Mandriva, etc. check at least the packages they include by default to see that they appear to be well-maintained, so I’m pretty sure you can safely rely on the software installed by default from a major distribution. Beyond that, I can’t tell you how to be sure (without reviewing the code yourself, which I’m not suggesting).

      I should note that you could get sloppy code in closed source products, but since no one but the company owning the product can see the source, it is harder to check the quality of closed source code, so we don’t really know how it compares to open source code. I’m not saying that the closed source code is often as sloppy as some of the open source code you see from less-skilled open source contributors, but I have a feeling some sloppiness slips through the closed source development processes, too.

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